FBI Director Finally Starts Answering Questions About Its Surveillance Flights Over US Cities

from the public-areas-still-public,-even-if-viewed-from-above dept

Suspicions confirmed (well, at least by the FBI…): the FBI has been flying its surveillance planes over cities, often at the behest of local law enforcement.

FBI Surveillance flights over Baltimore and Ferguson as residents of those cities engaged in civil disobedience against racially-motivated police violence were lawful and useful, bureau Director James Comey claimed Thursday.

Comey said that the missions were flown at the behest of local law enforcement in each case, as demonstrations raged against the killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray by city cops.

In cases where large-scale protests are probable, it’s unsurprising that aerial surveillance will be in use. Comey pitches the FBI’s secret surveillance flights as a public benefit, which, in these cases, it arguably is.

“If there is tremendous turbulence in a community, it’s useful to everybody—civilians and law enforcement—to have a view of what’s going on,” Comey said. “Where are the fires in this community? Where are people gathering? Where do people need help?” he went on.

What’s more concerning are the FBI’s other flights — the ones it’s not as eager to talk about. These flights were uncovered by journalists and hobbyists, who tracked the planes’ bizarre flight patterns, as well as traced their ID numbers back to a plethora of shell companies the FBI created to hide the planes’ purpose and origin.

To be clear, aerial surveillance rarely implicates Fourth Amendment concerns. In order to do so, planes/helicopters/drones have to fly at very low altitudes and disturb normal ground activities. At this point, the airborne surveillance becomes legally analogous to a breaching of the curtilage — more or less a warrantless search.

Comey also answered questions from Senator John Conyers, who had concerns about observed FBI flights over his home state of Michigan. As Comey explained, the flights are simply standard operating procedure.

We use planes in our predicated investigations to conduct surveillance of people who are under investigation. We do not use planes for mass surveillance. And so the good folks in Michigan who saw a plane in the air, I think a lot of them had a chance to meet with my SAC (special agent in charge) out there, and have him explain: ‘Look, this is what we do in criminal cases. It should make sense, if you understand how we use it in individual cases.’ So we have a small number of airplanes — I actually wish we had more — that we use to follow people in places where it’s hard to follow them on foot or in a car.”

Even if lawful, the planes are still raising surveillance concerns. Targeted surveillance is one thing, but it’s common knowledge that US government agencies are using airborne cell tower simulators. Much like the ground version (commonly known as Stingrays), these devices scoop cell phone connection data (which includes location info). Many can be configured to obtain communications as well. The FBI denies using any of its planes for “mass surveillance,” but the agency possesses all of the necessary technology to deploy them in this fashion.

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Comments on “FBI Director Finally Starts Answering Questions About Its Surveillance Flights Over US Cities”

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23 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

The government who cried 'Terrorist!'

We use planes in our predicated investigations to conduct surveillance of people who are under investigation. We do not use planes for mass surveillance.

Yeah, I don’t believe him.

He might be telling the truth, they might be using the planes for just what they say they are and nothing more, but the government has been caught in lie, after lie, after lie just in the past few years alone with regards to surveillance, that at this point the default assumption should be that if they can, they are. Can the planes be used in that fashion? If so, then it should be assumed that they are being used in that fashion, unless sufficient evidence is presented otherwise by an unbiased third party. At this point the government can be trusted to lie, and that’s about as far as the ‘trust’ goes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The government who cried 'Terrorist!'

I suspect that this is the real reason for the shell companies. The FBI isn’t saying that they don’t contract out cell site simulator work to third parties who might, at their discretion, use the aerial method instead of a ground-based spoofer.

So the FBI can positively state that all planes belonging to the FBI are only being used for targeted visual surveillance, and they can further state that the FBI is not using aerial CSS and even that it is not instructing anyone to do so. Of course “capture cell data surrounding person X who is on the move” when directed to a shell company that doesn’t have much equipment other than a plane-mounted stingray doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: The government who cried 'Terrorist!'

We do not use planes for mass surveillance.

Yeah, I don’t believe him.

I don’t believe he knows what he’s talking about, or he’s lying and expecting to get away with no-one questioning his words. What is “mass surveillance?” Of course, a plane flying overhead employing Stingray tech is surveilling the mass of people on the ground below it, else what is it doing?

However, I’m not sure it’s wrong for them to do this except in the USA with your fourth amendment. I see nothing terribly wrong with it, and even consider it smart use of technology by the cops. I would worry about the NSA storing records of my movements for decades for future cops to datamine and troll through, but once they determine all the crimes detected by said surveillance had been solved and perpetrators arrested, they delete the data, I’m satisfied with it. Good for them. It’s very unintrusive minimizing potentially hostile meetings of alleged perps and cops, and it gathers concrete evidence which should be usable in court at their leisure, at very little cost.

They’ve just got to figure out how to fit the fourth in there somewhere.

Anonymous Coward says:

It makes some sense that the FBI (or other government police authority) should be allowed to fly helicopters to monitor at-risk protest areas such as Ferguson. The problem was that news crews were slapped with a no-fly-zone ban that extended far beyond the protest areas. (and considering the Ferguson police’s tear-gas attack on the Al Jazeera camera crew, the sky might be the only safe place for journalists filming protests)

So it’s somewhat ironic that the only people allowed to film the Ferguson demonstrations from above –to document abuse by police– were the police themselves.

The FBI also has a long history of infiltrating law-abiding dissident political groups with the goal of installing an agent provocateur, a saboteur, and an informant at every level of the organization. Although infiltrating the FBI is a felony offense, the FBI is allowed under the law to infiltrate any private organization at will, no warrant required.

J. Edgar Hoover might be long dead, but his spirit lives on in the FBI.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: More Than Meets The Eye

No, the flights are different. The ones the FBI is talking about are using aircraft registered to the FBI that are using standard sweep and survey patterns to get perspective on people movements in the area.

The ones you’re talking about are aircraft registered to shell companies that are flying strange flight patterns which appear to be more focused on staying within a certain distance of an individual (or their phone). The FBI hasn’t addressed that issue at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Technically not lying. They probably use the planes to spy on a single person/phone at a time, and then switch targets every millisecond. Because they aren’t spying on everyone at the same time it doesn’t count as mass surveillance.

Technically not lying, but someone should definitely set his pants on fire.

Anonymous Coward says:

And the downlink transmission logs?

Comey makes a number of interesting points. The question remains whether the flights were being used for real-time ground support to vector police against lawful, (or otherwise) protesters. So if the flights were a public service mission, he won’t mind releasing the radio transmissions, right?

The point of civil disobedience, is to be disobedient. The protesters have CHOSEN to be at risk. So presuming ones authority derives from making them less so, is counter indicated. You cannot sell the idea of public safety, if you are the one making the public less safe.

Certainly non-combatants need to be protected. But after the bottles start flying that is no longer within control of law enforcement anyway. So using that as justification is tangiential at best.

Protests happen when people choose to abandon safety because safety and liberty have become mutually exclusive. In this country agencies of state are tasked with preserving BOTH.

Not an easy job, I grant you. But that is the job.

So how about this: The FBI investigates the oligarchy a little. Maybe lock up some AIG guys and some racist cops. Perhaps that will result in less protests? What do you think?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: And the downlink transmission logs?

So how about this: The FBI investigates the oligarchy a little. Maybe lock up some AIG guys and some racist cops. Perhaps that will result in less protests?

Nope, not good enough. The insults run too deep, and I’m gettin’ old. I want to see heads on pikes all along the roadside and corpses rotting on crosses where there’s still room.

Once more with feeling: You don’t have to be an asshole. Try harder!

Sam richards (user link) says:

FBI sky lies

The DoJ requires law enforcement agencies to use warrants for cell site simulators like stingray which FBI director comey told congress he doesn’t do…

There are 4th amendment concerns and the flights scoop up data on innocent Americans and potentially use that data for prosecutions later on… We know of no judicial review or data retention policies. People should not be placated they should be pissed.

http://nstarpost.com/mobile/displayarticle.aspx?smid=17518&aid=145186

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